President Obama is heading into stormy waters. His healthcare plans have stalled on Capitol Hill; he is being faulted for a shaky response to the post-election violence in Iran; his job-approval ratings are dropping; and confidence in his handling of the economy is ebbing. The warning signs are enough to worry Democratic strategists that Obama may be sinking into a trough that will sap his influence just when he needs it most.
Until now, President Obama has enjoyed a honeymoon with the country and the media (although not with opposition Republicans). This was because the supremely articulate, charismatic Obama presented such a contrast to George W. Bush, who remains unpopular. In addition, voters wanted action from their president in tough times, according to Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, and Obama delivered. In fact, he has moved the federal government into a more activist role than it has had under any other president in years, bailing out the financial industry, taking over much of the U.S. auto industry, injecting vast sums of money into the economy, and proposing huge changes in healthcare, energy policy, and other areas of national life. Finally, Obama is very appealing as an individual, which initially boosted his ratings.
But the ground may be shifting. Over the past couple of weeks, Obama has endured a surge of bad news, reversing his momentum. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that one of the major Democratic healthcare proposals being circulated in the Senate would cost an astounding $1 trillion; the estimate for another plan was even larger—$1.6 trillion. This sent legislators scurrying to reduce the price tags, which will in turn cause delays in considering the massive bills this summer and could jeopardize passage in the fall.
Another setback came when two powerful insurers' associations announced their opposition to an Obama-backed government health plan that would be in competition with private, employer-sponsored plans. In a letter to senators released this week, America's Health Insurance Plans and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association wrote, "Regardless of how it is initially structured, a government plan would use its built-in advantages to take over the health insurance market." But Obama told a news conference Tuesday, "The public [government] plan, I think, is an important tool to discipline insurance companies."
Beyond healthcare, unemployment continues to rise, and Obama has conceded that it will probably exceed 10 percent later this summer. The economy remains in a recession, and forecasters say there will be more pain ahead. Overall, Obama's programs have run up the deficit by astronomical margins, at least $1 trillion this year alone. This has sparked criticism that he is breaking the bank, and the public seems increasingly rattled. A Washington Post/ABC News poll this week found that while 65 percent of Americans approve of Obama's job performance, his positive rating has declined by 4 percentage points since April. Only 52 percent say Obama's ballyhooed $787 billion economic stimulus program has succeeded or will succeed, down from 59 percent two months ago. Americans are evenly split, 48 to 48 percent, in approving or disapproving of how Obama is handling the deficit.
"I see his popularity continuing to diminish," says Frank Donatelli, former political director for President Ronald Reagan and current chairman of GOPAC, a conservative political action committee. "He'll come down to a more normal level."
In the most serious foreign crisis of his young presidency, the violent crackdown on protesters after the disputed presidential election in Iran has made Obama seem off balance. At his news conference Tuesday, he finally got tough with his rhetoric. But his critics argue that his response has been weak and that his newfound toughness comes too late to do much good in helping the Iranian reformers who are battling the government.
Adding to his problems, there has been a noticeable increase in tension between the president and the press corps. At his news conference, reporters were more adversarial than they've been since he took office, and they homed in on topics that made him uncomfortable, such as his response to the abuses in Iran and even his inability to give up smoking.